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1777-8-9. From the Battle of Fort Moultrie to that of Savannah -- Anecdote of Jasper -- His Death.
The battle of Fort Sullivan was of immense importance, not merely to Carolina, but to all the confederated colonies. It saved the former, for three years, from the calamities of invasion; a respite of the last value to a country so greatly divided in public feeling and opinion. The battle preceded the declaration of Independence, and, though not generally known to have taken place before that decisive measure was resolved upon, it came seasonably to confirm the patriots in those principles which they had so solemnly and recently avowed. Its farther effect was to dissipate that spell of invincibility, which, in the minds of the Americans, seemed to hover about a British armament; -- to heighten the courage of the militia, and to convince the most sceptical, that it needed only confidence and practice, to make the American people as good soldiers as any in the world. The Carolina riflemen were not a little elated to discover that they could handle twenty-six pounders as efficiently as the smaller implements of death, to which their hands were better accustomed. To the defenders of the fortress, their victory brought imperishable laurels. They had shown the courage and the skill of veterans, and their countrymen gloried in the reputation in which they necessarily shared. Moultrie received the thanks of Congress, of the Commander-in-Chief, and of his fellow citizens. The fort was thenceforth called by his name, and he was made a Brigadier-General. His Major, Marion, necessarily had his share in these public honors, and was raised by Congress to the rank of Lieut.-Colonel in the regular service. Two days after the battle, General Lee reviewed the garrison at Fort Moultrie, and thanked them "for their gallant defence of the fort against a fleet of eight men-of-war and a bomb, during a cannonade of eleven hours, and a bombardment of seven." At the same time, Mrs. Barnard Elliott presented an elegant pair of embroidered colors to the Second Regiment, with a brief address, in which she expressed her conviction that they would "stand by them as long as they can wave in the air of liberty." It was in fulfilling the pledge made by General Moultrie, on this occasion, in behalf of the regiment, that the brave Jasper lost his life before the walls of Savannah.
The three years' respite from the horrors of war, which this victory secured to Carolina, was not, however, left unemployed by her citizen soldiery. The progress of events around them kept their services in constant requisition. While a part of them, in the interior, were compelled to take arms against the Cherokee Indians, the troops of the lower country were required against the Tories in Florida and Georgia. Governor Tonyn of the former, an active loyalist, proved a formidable annoyance to the patriots of the latter province. Florida, under his administration, was the secure refuge and certain retreat for all the malcontents and outlaws of the neighboring colonies. He gave them ample encouragement, put arms into their hands, and even issued letters of marque against the property of the colonists, in anticipation of the act for that purpose, in the British parliament. General Lee marched upon Florida with the Virginia and North Carolina troops. He was subsequently joined by those of South Carolina; but, owing to his own ill-advised and improvident movements, the expedition was a total failure.* This result necessarily gave encouragement to the Tories; and, though in too small numbers to effect any important objects without the cooperation of a British force, they were yet sufficiently active to invite the presence of one. They formed themselves into little squads, and, moving through the country with celerity, pursued their marauding habits at little risk, as they sought only unsuspecting neighborhoods, and promptly fled to the fastnesses of Florida on the approach of danger. To direct and properly avail themselves of these parties, the British commanders in America addressed their attention to Georgia. The infancy of that colony necessarily led them to hope for an easy conquest in attempting it. In February, 1777, General Howe, then commanding the troops in North Carolina and Georgia, was advised of the approach of Colonel Fuser, to the invasion of Georgia. He hurried on immediately to prepare Savannah for defence; while Marion, with a force of 600 men, in several vessels, provided with cannon and ammunition, was dispatched, by the inland passage, to his assistance. Marion left Charleston on the 28th of February, but his approach had no farther effect than to precipitate the flight of the enemy, who, meeting with a stout opposition from Colonel Elbert, at Ogechee ferry, had already desisted from farther advance. The British attempts on Georgia were deferred to a later period. But the loyalists were busy, particularly that portion of them, which took the name of Scopholites, after one Scophol, a militia Colonel, whom Moultrie describes as an "illiterate, stupid, noisy blockhead". He proved not the less troublesome because of his stupidity.
-- * Drayton's Memoirs, vol. 2, p. 336. --
Marion was more or less employed during this period, in various situations. He was never unemployed. We find him at length in command of the fort which he had formerly contributed to defend and render famous. He was placed in charge of the garrison at Fort Moultrie. The value of this fort was estimated rather according to its celebrity, than its real usefulness. Subsequent events have shown that its capacity was not great in retarding the approach of an enemy's fleet to the city. It was the error of Sir Peter Parker -- obeying an old but exploded military maxim, not to leave an armed post of the enemy in his rear -- to pause before a fortress, the conquest of which could in no wise contribute to his success, -- and defeat before which, must necessarily endanger his final objects. It was still the impression of the Carolinians that Fort Moultrie must be assailed as a preliminary step to the conquest of Charleston, and the post, as one of the highest honor and danger, was conferred upon Marion.* It was not known, indeed, at what moment the gallantry of the garrison might be put to the proof. The British were known to be making large marine and military preparations at New York, intended, as it was generally understood, for the south. Charleston or Savannah, were supposed indifferently to be the places of its destination. It might be very well supposed that the enemy would seek, at the former place, to recover those honors of war of which its gallant defenders had deprived him.
-- * When the British under Prevost, were in possession of the neighboring islands, Moultrie writes, "we were apprehensive the enemy would attempt to surprise Fort Moultrie; we, therefore, always kept a strong garrison there under General Marion." --
But, any doubt as to the destination of the British fleet was soon removed. In December, 1778, thirty-seven sail appeared before Savannah, and four thousand British regulars were disembarked. The American force left in defence of Savannah was a feeble one, of six or seven hundred men, under General Howe. General Howe was but little of a soldier. Instead of withdrawing this force, he suffered it to be sacrificed. Badly posted, he was surprised, and his troops beaten and dispersed with little difficulty. Savannah fell at once into the hands of the enemy, and the whole colony very shortly after. General Prevost was in command of the British. Opposed to him was Major-General Lincoln, of the Continental army. While Prevost occupied the posts of Savannah, Ebenezer, Abercorn, and other places, he was active in pushing select parties forward to Augusta, and other commanding points in the interior. The force under Lincoln did not enable him to offer any active opposition to their progress. His headquarters were at Purysburg, on the Savannah river, but a few miles from Abercorn, where Colonel Campbell lay with the main body of the enemy. General Ashe, of the Americans, occupied the post at Brier Creek, and, thus placed, the opposing commanders seemed disposed for a while to rest upon their arms, waiting events and reinforcements.
It was while the second South Carolina regiment lay at Purysburg, that an adventure occurred, which has so often been repeated in connection with the name and life of Marion, that we should scarcely be excused from introducing it here, as properly in place in this memoir. Weems asserts that Marion was present at this time with his regiment at Purysburg. It is impossible to say whether he was or not. It is not improbable that he was with his regiment, and yet the weight of evidence inclines us to the opinion that he was still at Fort Moultrie. It is not unlikely, however, that, when the direction of the British fleet was known, and it was ascertained that Savannah and not Charleston was its object, he immediately joined his regiment at Purysburg, leaving Fort Moultrie in the charge of some less distinguished officer. At all events the point is not of importance to the anecdote we have to relate. Personally, Marion had nothing to do with it. It was only because the actors in the adventure belonged to his regiment, and were of "Marion's men", that tradition has insisted on associating his name with theirs. It is not for us to have it otherwise. The reader is already somewhat acquainted with the name of William Jasper -- perhaps Sergeant Jasper is the better known. This brave man possessed remarkable talents for a scout. He could wear all disguises with admirable ease and dexterity. Garden styles him "a perfect Proteus".* He was equally remarkable for his strategy as for his bravery; and his nobleness and generosity were, quite as much as these, the distinguishing traits of his character. Such was the confidence in his fidelity and skill that a roving commission was granted him, with liberty to pick his associates from the Brigade. Of these he seldom chose more than six. "He often went out," says Moultrie, "and returned with prisoners, before I knew that he was gone. I have known of his catching a party that was looking for him. He has told me that he could have killed single men several times, but he would not; he would rather let them get off. He went into the British lines at Savannah, as a deserter, complaining, at the same time, of our ill-usage of him; he was gladly received (they having heard of his character) and caressed by them. He stayed eight days, and after informing himself well of their strength, situation and intentions, he returned to us again; but that game he could not play a second time. With his little party he was always hovering about the enemy's camp, and was frequently bringing in prisoners."** We have seen what reason was alleged by this brave fellow for not accepting the commission tendered to him by Governor Rutledge, for his gallantry in the battle of Fort Moultrie. The nature of his services was no less a reason why he should reject the commission. The fact that he seldom allowed himself a command of more than six men declared sufficiently the degree of authority to which he thought his talents were entitled.
-- * "He was a perfect Proteus, in ability to alter his appearance; perpetually entering the camp of the enemy, without detection, and invariably returning to his own, with soldiers he had seduced, or prisoners he had captured." ** Moultrie's Mem., vol. 2, p. 24. --
It was while in the exercise of his roving privileges that Jasper prepared to visit the post of the enemy at Ebenezer. At this post he had a brother, who held the same rank in the British service, that he held in the American. This instance was quite too common in the history of the period and country, to occasion much surprise, or cause any suspicion of the integrity of either party. We have already considered the causes for this melancholy difference of individual sentiment in the country, and need not dwell upon them here. William Jasper loved his brother and wished to see him: it is very certain, at the same time, that he did not deny himself the privilege of seeing all around him. The Tory was alarmed at William's appearance in the British camp, but the other quieted his fears, by representing himself as no longer an American soldier. He checked the joy which this declaration excited in his brother's mind, by assuring him that, though he found little encouragement in fighting for his country, "he had not the heart to fight against her." Our scout lingered for two or three days in the British camp, and then, by a `detour', regained that of the Americans; reporting to his Commander all that he had seen. He was encouraged to repeat his visit a few weeks after, but this time he took with him a comrade, one Sergeant Newton, a fellow quite as brave in spirit, and strong in body as himself. Here he was again well received by his brother, who entertained the guests kindly for several days. Meanwhile, a small party of Americans were brought into Ebenezer as captives, over whom hung the danger of "short shrift and sudden cord". They were on their way to Savannah for trial. They had taken arms with the British, as hundreds more had done, when the country was deemed reconquered; but, on the approach of the American army, had rejoined their countrymen, and were now once more at the mercy of the power with which they had broken faith. "It will go hard with them," said the Tory Jasper to his Whig brother; but the secret comment of the other was, "it shall go hard with me first." There was a woman, the wife of one of the prisoners, who, with her child, kept them company. William Jasper and his friend were touched by the spectacle of their distress; and they conferred together, as soon as they were alone, as to the possibility of rescuing them. Their plan was soon adopted. It was a simple one, such as naturally suggests itself to a hardy and magnanimous character. The prisoners had scarcely left the post for Savannah, under a guard of eight men, a sergeant and corporal, when they took leave of their host, and set forth also, though in a different direction from the guard. Changing their course when secure from observation, they stretched across the country and followed the footsteps of the unhappy captives. But it was only in the pursuit that they became truly conscious of the difficulty, nay, seeming impossibility, of effecting their object. The guard was armed, and ten in number; they but two and weaponless. Hopeless, they nevertheless followed on. Two miles from Savannah there is a famous spring, the waters of which are well known to travellers. The conjecture that the guard might stop there, with the prisoners, for refreshment, suggested itself to our companions; here, opportunities might occur for the rescue, which had nowhere before presented themselves. Taking an obscure path with which they were familiar, which led them to the spot before the enemy could arrive, they placed themselves in ambush in the immediate neighborhood of the spring. They had not long to wait. Their conjecture proved correct. The guard was halted on the road opposite the spring. The corporal with four men conducted the captives to the water, while the sergeant, with the remainder of his force, having made them ground their arms near the road, brought up the rear. The prisoners threw themselves upon the earth -- the woman and her child, near its father. Little did any of them dream that deliverance was at hand. The child fell asleep in the mother's lap. Two of the armed men kept guard, but we may suppose with little caution. What had they to apprehend, within sight of a walled town in the possession of their friends? Two others approached the spring, in order to bring water to the prisoners. Resting their muskets against a tree they proceeded to fill their canteens. At this moment Jasper gave the signal to his comrade. In an instant the muskets were in their hands. In another, they had shot down the two soldiers upon duty; then clubbing their weapons, they rushed out upon the astonished enemy, and felling their first opponents each at a blow, they succeeded in obtaining possession of the loaded muskets. This decided the conflict, which was over in a few minutes. The surviving guard yielded themselves to mercy before the presented weapons. Such an achievement could only be successful from its audacity and the operation of circumstances. The very proximity of Savannah increased the chances of success. But for this the guard would have taken better precautions. None were taken. The prompt valor, the bold decision, the cool calculation of the instant, were the essential elements which secured success. The work of our young heroes was not done imperfectly. The prisoners were quickly released, the arms of the captured British put into their hands, and, hurrying away from the spot which they have crowned with a local celebrity not soon to be forgotten, they crossed the Savannah in safety with their friends and foes. This is not the last achievement of the brave Jasper which we shall have occasion to record. The next, however, though not less distinguished by success, was unhappily written in his own blood.
The campaign which followed was distinguished by several vicissitudes, but the general result was the weakening and dispiriting of the American forces. Brigadier General Ashe was surprised in his camp and utterly defeated, and the British army not only penetrated into Georgia, but made its appearance at Beaufort in South Carolina. Here it was met by Moultrie in a spirited encounter, which resulted in a drawn battle. Meanwhile, General Lincoln found the militia refractory. They refused to submit to the articles of war, and desired to serve only under those laws by which the militia was governed. Chagrined with this resistance, Lincoln transferred the militia to Moultrie, and, at the head of about 2000 troops of the regular service, he marched up the country to Augusta, proposing by this course to circumscribe the progress of the enemy in that quarter. Taking advantage of this movement, by which the regular troops were withdrawn from the seaboard, the British General, Prevost, immediately crossed the Savannah with the intention of surprising Moultrie, who, with 1200 militia-men, lay at Black Swamp. But Moultrie, advised of his enemy, retired to Coosawhatchie, where he placed his rear guard; his headquarters being pitched on the hill, east of Tuliffinnee, two miles in advance, and on the route to Charleston. Here the rear-guard, under Colonel Laurens, engaged the enemy's advance, and was driven before it. Moultrie gradually retired as Prevost advanced, and the contest which followed between the two, seemed to be which should reach Charleston first. The defenceless condition of that city was known to the British General, whose object was to take it by `coup de main'. Moultrie erred in not making continued fight in the swamps and strong passes, the thick forests and intricate defiles, which were numerous along the route of the pursuing army. His policy seems to have been dictated by an undue estimate of the value of the city, and the importance of its safety to the state. But for this, even an army so much inferior as his, could have effectually checked the enemy long before the city could have been reached. Moultrie continued in advance of Prevost, and reached Charleston a few hours before him; just in season to establish something like order, and put the place in a tolerable state of defence. The fire from the lines arrested the British advance. The place was summoned, and defiance returned. Night followed, and the next morning the enemy had disappeared. His object had been surprise. He was unprepared for the assault, having no heavy artillery, and his departure was hastened by intercepted advices from Lincoln and Governor Rutledge, which announced to the garrison the approach of the regular troops and the country militia. Prevost retired to the neighboring islands, and established himself in a strong fort at Stono ferry. Here he was attacked by General Lincoln in a spirited but unsuccessful affair, in which the latter was compelled to retreat. The attack of Lincoln was followed by one of Moultrie, in galleys. The situation of the British became unpleasant, and they did not wait a repetition of these assaults, but retreated along the chain of islands on the coast, until they reached Beaufort and Savannah. Both of these places they maintained; the latter with their main army, the former with a strong body of troops, apart from their sick, wounded and convalescent. Here they were watched by General Lincoln, in a camp of observation at Sheldon, until the appearance of a French fleet on the coast led to renewed activity, and hopes, on the part of the Americans, which were destined to bitter disappointment.
Marion was certainly with his regiment at Sheldon, and when it became probable that there was some prospect of battle, we find him at Fort Moultrie, when Prevost was in possession of the contiguous islands. But a junction of the French and American forces, necessarily compelling the concentration of the whole of the southern invading army at Savannah, lessened the necessity of his remaining at a post which stood in no manner of danger.
Early in September, 1779, the French admiral, Count D'Estaign, with a fleet of twenty sail, appeared upon the coast. As soon as this was certainly known, General Lincoln put his army in motion for Savannah. But the French forces had disembarked before his arrival, and the impatience and imprudence of their admiral did not suffer him to wait the coming of the American. He was a rash man, and, as it appears, on bad terms with his subordinate officers, who were, indeed, not subordinate.* He proceeded to summon the place. The answer to his demand was, a request of twenty-four hours for consideration. By a singular error of judgment the French admiral granted the time required. His only hope had been in a `coup de main'. He had neither the time nor the material necessary for regular approaches; nor, had he acted decisively, do these seem to have been at all necessary. The place was not tenable at the period of his first summons. The prompt energies of the British commander soon made it so. Instead of considering, he consumed the twenty-four hours in working. The arrival of Lieutenant-Colonel Cruger, with a small command, from Sunbury, and the force of Lieutenant-Colonel Maitland, from Beaufort, soon put the fortress in such a condition of defence as to enable its commander to return his defiance to the renewed summons of the combined armies. There seems to have been but one opinion among the Americans as to the mistake of D'Estaign, in granting the required indulgence. Weems, speaking for General Horry, says, "I never beheld Marion in so great a passion. I was actually afraid he would have broken out on General Lincoln. `My God!' he exclaimed, `who ever heard of anything like this before? First allow an enemy to entrench, and then fight him! See the destruction brought upon the British at Bunker's Hill -- yet our troops there were only militia; raw, half-armed clodhoppers, and not a mortar, or carronade, not even a swivel -- only their ducking-guns! What, then, are we to expect from regulars, completely armed, with a choice train of artillery, and covered by a breastwork.'"
-- * Major-General T. Pinckney's account of the siege of Savannah, quoted by Garden. --
The anticipations of Marion were fully realized. When the junction of the French and American armies was effected, it was determined to reduce the place by siege. Batteries were to be erected, and cannon brought from the ships, a distance of several miles. Meanwhile, the works of the besieged were undergoing daily improvements, under an able engineer. Several hundred negroes were busy, day and night, upon the defences, stimulated, when necessary, to exertion, by the lash. On the 4th of October the besiegers opened with nine mortars and thirty-seven pieces of cannon from the land side, and sixteen from the water. They continued to play for several days, with little effect, and the anxiety of the French admiral to leave the coast, at a season of the year when it is particularly perilous to shipping to remain, determined the besiegers to risk everything upon an assault. The morning of the 9th October was fixed upon for the attack. The American army was paraded at one o'clock that morning, but it was near four before the head of the French column reached the front. "The whole army then marched towards the skirt of the wood in one long column, and as they approached the open space, was to break off into the different columns, as ordered for the attack. But, by the time the first French column had arrived at the open space, the day had fairly broke; when Count D'Estaign, without waiting until the other columns had arrived at their position, placed himself at the head of his first column, and rushed forward to the attack."* This was creditable to his gallantry, if not to his judgment. But it was valor thrown away. "The column was so severely galled by the grape-shot from the batteries, as they advanced, and by both grape-shot and musketry, when they reached the abbatis, that, in spite of the efforts of the officers, it got into confusion, and broke away to their left, toward the wood in that direction; the second and third French columns shared, successively, the same fate, having the additional discouragement of seeing, as they marched to the attack, the repulse and loss of their comrades who had preceded them. Count Pulaski, who, with the cavalry, preceded the right column of the Americans, proceeded gallantly, until stopped by the abbatis; and before he could force through it received his mortal wound."** The American column was much more successful. It was headed by Colonel Laurens, with the Light Infantry, followed by the Second South Carolina Regiment, of which Marion was second in command, and the first battalion of Charleston militia. This column pressed forward, in the face of a heavy fire, upon the Spring Hill redoubt, succeeded in getting into the ditch, and the colors of the second regiment were planted upon the berm. But the parapet was too high to be scaled under such a fire as proceeded from the walls, and, struggling bravely but vainly, the assailants were, after suffering severe slaughter, driven out of the ditch. This slaughter was increased in the effort to retain and carry off in safety the colors of the regiment.
-- * Major-General Thomas Pinckney, in a letter quoted by Garden. ** Major-General Thomas Pinckney. See Garden. --
These colors, as we have seen, were the gift of a lady. Moultrie, in the name of the regiment, had promised to defend them to the last. The promise was faithfully remembered in this moment of extremity. One of them was borne by Lieutenant Bush, supported by Sergeant Jasper; the other by Lieutenant Grey, supported by Sergeant M'Donald. Bush being slightly wounded early in the action delivered his standard to Jasper, for better security. Jasper a second time and now fatally wounded, restored it to the former. But at the moment of taking it, Bush received a mortal wound. He fell into the ditch with his ensign under him, and it remained in possession of the enemy. The other standard was more fortunate. Lieutenant Grey, by whom it was borne, was slain, but M'Donald plucked it from the redoubt where it had been planted, the moment the retreat was ordered, and succeeded in carrying it off in safety. The repulse was decisive. The slaughter, for so brief an engagement, had been terrible, amounting to nearly eleven hundred men; 637 French, and 457 Americans. Of the former, the Irish Brigade, and of the latter the 2d South Carolina Regiment, particularly distinguished themselves and suffered most. The loss of the British was slight; the assailants made no impression on their works. "Thus was this fine body of troops sacrificed by the imprudence of the French General, who, being of superior grade, commanded the whole.* In this battle Jasper was mortally wounded. He succeeded in regaining the camp of the Americans. The fatal wound was received in his endeavor to secure and save his colors. Another distinguished personage who fell in this fatal affair, was Col. Count Pulaski, a brave and skilful captain of cavalry, better known in history for his attempt upon the life of Stanislaus Poniatowski, King of Poland.
-- * Major-General T. Pinckney. --
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